I am sure that most of you know of Apple’s Siri, the voice activated personal assistant that is included with every iPhone and iPad. Microsoft has it’s own version called Cortana. Google has OK Google. And Amazon has a stand alone device called the Amazon Echo, also known as Alexa.
Each of these services can help you in similar ways. You wake them up with a voice command then ask a question or ask the service to do something for you like call someone, schedule an appointment, look up movie times or maybe play some music. The list of capabilities continues to expand rapidly. For example, not too surprisingly, you can now ask Amazon’s Alexa to order things for you. “Alexa, I need toilet paper.”
Where the Amazon Echo differ’s from the other products is that it is a stand-alone device: a black cylinder with a blue light that also is a speaker for talking to you and playing music. You can read a review of the Echo here. And here’s another article about how the voice-first interface will become ubiquitous.
All of these services are based upon some very sophisticated artificial intelligence (A.I.) that for now listens to you, understands you and provides you with answers. Before too long they will become smarter than you, able to anticipate what you want and need before you even think about it. This is where it starts to get dark.
The first issue is one of privacy. If you can say “Hey, Siri” to get Siri’s attention that means that Siri is always listening to you. When you ask any of these services a question your question does not stay private to your device, it is sent to Apple or Amazon or Google for analysis and the answer is sent back to you. These companies are all building profiles on you to better understand what you might be asking and what you are looking for, and as I mentioned, to anticipate your needs. You can read about these privacy issues here and here.
And if the privacy issue is not enough to worry about there is the concern that as A.I. continues to improve it will make humans redundant. More: Google is concerned enough about A.I. getting out of control (Can you say Skynet?), it wants to build an off switch into sophisticated, decentralized A.I.
For now, however, I comfort myself knowing that when I ask “Hey Siri. Will it rain today?” the answer is wrong half the time.